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Monthly Archives: April 2015

The big uneasy.

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I could have celebrated Duke Ellington’s birthday with his best-known works — “Satin Doll,” or the First Sacred Concert, or the Far East Suite.

(Or, hell, “Sir Duke.”)

Instead, I am enjoying a few fingers of rye in the company of one of Ellington’s less celebrated albums, while chewing on questions of artistic authenticity.

duke1970’s New Orleans Suite is usually described by critics as pleasant but not essential, memorable chiefly as the last hurrah of Ellington’s longtime alto saxman Johnny Hodges. Hodges died in the interim between the album’s two recording sessions and appears on five of its nine tracks, his tone gentle and dignified to the last.

The cover of New Orleans Suite gives a foretaste of its contents. It’s devoid of any hint of bons-temps-roulez; in its simple gray-on-white portrait, Ellington looks like an old man peering melancholically through a rain-slicked window.

The music, similarly, features few traces of the giddy parade funk or whorehouse rumba so often associated with the Crescent City. There’s a tune called “Second Line,” but its rhythm is straight swing; only “Portrait of Sidney Bechet,” one of four musical “portraits” on the album, so much as flirts with a clave.

When the music makes up its mind to gather momentum, as on the opening “Blues for New Orleans,” it feels like a determined march, not a soar or strut … and the closing “Portrait of Mahalia Jackson” sounds, in parts, like dejection itself. The New Orleans of these compositions is not the city of French Quarter gaiety, but the city of aging riverfront warehouses and small, careworn houses with mismatched shutters.

On a certain level, this is a fine thing.

Casual listeners (read: me) tend to lump New Orleans music into a good-timey Mardi Gras bag … your Dr. John, your Professor Longhair, your Wild Tchoupitoulas.

Great music, all of it. There’s a reason it’s so celebrated. But it’s also good to be reminded that people can make worthwhile New Orleans music (or New Orleans-inspired music) without the familiar, verging-on-cliched rhythmic and thematic ingredients.

It would be easy to stop there. But, as the band plays on, I am led into larger questions about the New Orleans authenticity that underlies the whole project.

My understanding is that the New Orleans Suite was not an organic Ellington invention: Jazz impresario George Wein commissioned him to write it for the 1970 New Orleans Jazz Festival. (The suite performed at the festival included only five songs; the four “portraits” were added for the subsequent studio recording.)

Sure, Duke knew New Orleans and plenty of New Orleanians. But one wonders how much of the music was actually inspired by the city … or whether Ellington, faced with a theme, an expectation and a deadline, simply pulled unused or partially developed tunes out of his ragbag and gave them titles that would please his patron.

There’s some precedent for that. At least one of the tunes of the Far East Suite, Hodges’ gorgeous showcase “Isfahan,” wasn’t written with the Far East in mind; it was in the Ellington band’s repertoire prior to the world tour that inspired the album.

That doesn’t make the music any less beautiful.

But for those of us who like to puff on a big ol’ meerschaum pipe full of backstory and context while we listen, it complicates our relationship to the music. Is it really what it claims to be? Is an impressionistic portrait of smoke from a factory chimney being passed off as a jar full of roses?

No song on New Orleans Suite encapsulates this conflict quite so much as my favorite, “Bourbon Street Jingling Jollies,” a lengthy feature for flutist Norris Turney.

In the album’s liner notes, Ellington is quoted as describing the song as “a rhythmic tone parallel to the excruciating ecstasies one finds oneself suspended in when one is in the throes of the jingling rhythmic jollies of Bourbon Street.”

I don’t hear the slightest bit of pleasure — excruciating or otherwise — in the recorded piece. I hear ominous rumbling, foreboding, and thick storm clouds drifting in from the Gulf. I don’t see sailors wearing “I Got Bourbon-Faced on Shit Street” T-shirts; I see cobras uncoiling from street-corner gutters, swaying to their own prehistoric rhythms, poised to strike.

Duke forgot more about Bourbon Street than I’ll ever know, I’m sure, so his portrait is more informed than any I could construct.

I still can’t get around the difference between the image in his mind and the image in mine, which is sufficiently different to make me wonder whether Duke really had the French Quarter in mind when he wrote it.

Here’s the tune in question. Maybe you’ll see the smoking chimney; maybe the jar of roses; or maybe something else again:

Fixin’ to see the country.

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My musical diet in recent months has kinda fallen off the radar. I’m as likely to listen to some unknown band I stumbled across on Bandcamp, or someone’s online mix of obscurities, as I am to pull out something by an established artist.

The Los Angeles-based music blog Aquarium Drunkard is one of my recent favorites, posting mixes of independent or lesser-known music on a fairly regular basis. (Their Thanksgiving: Late Autumn Light mix was a particular favorite; it seemed to work very nicely with that time of year.)

Not long ago, Aquarium Drunkard posted a mix by Andy Cabic, a folk singer-songwriter who performs under the name Vetiver.

I’m not a huge fan of solo artists who hide behind band names — just put your own damn name on the record already — but I can’t argue with the Vetiver collection, which runs the gamut from echoey Spanish-language pop to Fifties summer-love balladry to snarly Lou Reed-style garage-rock.

Not to mention the tune that has my ear tonight: “Country Mover” by Claire Lawrence, which sticks out as the only song I’ve ever heard that was a straight-on Jefferson Airplane rip. What “30 Days in The Hole” is to the Stones, or maybe even “Lies” is to the Beatles, “Country Mover” is to the ‘Plane.

I have no idea if it was intentional or not, as I know nothing of Claire Lawrence. Google doesn’t say much except to mention that Mr. Lawrence — I’m presuming his is the male lead voice, not the female harmony — released an album called Leaving You Free in 1973 on a Canadian record label, Haida. (Canadian folk veteran Valdy was a labelmate.)

I do know the following, though:

– Lawrence possesses a voice in the same range and timbre as Paul Kantner’s, only vaguely less creaky around the edges. He phrases like Kantner too.

– Lawrence and his unnamed female harmony partner seem to be using the same harmonic intervals used by Kantner and Grace Slick. (Sure, Paul and Grace didn’t copyright ’em or anything, but listen to the song and you’ll hear what I mean.)

– There’s no equivalent to Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady’s instrumental fireworks on “Country Mover,” but it rests on a bed of piano that’s firmly reminiscent of some Airplane-family songs from circa 1969-’71.

The least Airplane-like part of “Country Mover” is the lyrics, which paint an idealized portrait of a freewheeling young woman who travels coast to coast without being burned, molested, bummed out, hung up, or falling victim to the sundry darknesses of the American road.

In fact, the whole thing sounds like what you’d get if you gave a Madison Avenue jingle-writer a copy of Volunteers (or maybe Sunfighter) and told him to write something for an extended-length Amtrak ad.

Still, it is not charmless for that. And for those of us with a fondness for the vintage Airplane sound, it’s a curious pleasure.

If you want to hear it, it starts at about 2:30 in, here.

Anchors aweigh.

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Usually, when I go to see a baseball game, the thought floats in the back of my mind: Will I see one of these guys on TV someday, playing in the majors?

At the college games I attend, the answer is pretty much “no,” as my local schools are not hothouses of pro talent. (There are occasional exceptions.)

Today, on a gorgeous 80-degree day, I went to see the Midshipmen of the U.S. Naval Academy play a game against Lehigh University.

And I thought, as I often do when I see Army or Navy come to this area: Will I see one of these guys in a televised briefing someday, explaining a military action?

On the baseball field, the young men of Army or Navy look and perform no differently than the young men of Lafayette or Lehigh. There’s no real reason for me to think about their futures, any more than I should look at the Lehigh kids and think: Hmmm, wonder if he’ll be an engineer with IBM or General Motors?

Still, I often find myself thinking about the unique career path the Army and Navy players are headed down, and wondering if there could be a future Chief of Naval Operations or Chief of Staff of the Army out on the field playing long-toss.

(A quick online search does not indicate that any recent Navy top brass are former ballplayers … though I did learn that Joe Bellino and Roger Staubach, two Midshipmen better known for their football exploits, are both former captains of the Navy baseball team.)

The one Navy ballplayer I will remember by name is Luke Gillingham, the starting pitcher in game one of today’s doubleheader.

Gillingham has clearly mastered the important military skill of executing orders, because he went out today and obeyed the commands given by pitching coaches since time immemorial: Work fast, throw strikes and get ahead in the count.

The result was an impressive seven-inning one-hitter, as they only play seven innings on doubleheader days. It was the lowest-hit complete game I’ve ever seen at any kind of organized level. (I saw a rain-shortened no-hitter once at the beer-league level, which shouldn’t really count for anything, though it was a fun night.)

Gillingham struck out 11 batters, only got into a jam once, and seemed just about as strong at the end of the game as he was at the beginning; I suspect he could have worked the full nine if he’d absolutely had to. It was a pleasure to watch.

I do not hope I ever see Luke Gillingham on TV explaining why we’re sending battleships to some distant part of the globe.

But if I do, I will think: Y’know, I’ve seen this guy in command somewhere before…

Luke Gillingham and his catcher celebrate after the last out.

Luke Gillingham and his catcher celebrate after the last out.

Swing and a miss.

Swing and a miss.

Another swing, another miss.

Another swing, another miss.

Dealing.

Dealing.

A couple of Navy subs (no pun intended) watch from the bullpen. I believe the military term for their role in the game is "JAFO."

A couple of Navy subs (no pun intended) watch from the bullpen. I believe the military term for their role in the game is “JAFO.”

One guy on that ballfield -- and only one -- knew how to wear his socks. Sad.

One guy on that ballfield — and only one — knew how to wear his socks. Sad.

Lehigh's new infield is entirely fake turf -- including the basepaths -- and balls hit off it send up odd sprays of dirt.

Lehigh’s new infield is entirely artificial turf — including the basepaths and the area around home plate — and balls hit off it send up odd sprays of dirt.

Good game.

Good game.

Encore Performances: Virginia death trip.

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During my recent trip to Virginia I procured my second-ever bottle of moonshine. This post from February 2011 on the old blog tells what happened when I bought my first.

Just back from a few days at the in-laws’ in Virginia, a trip chiefly memorable for producing two reminders of how short, nasty and brutish life used to be.

Took the family to Mount Vernon on Washington’s birthday.
We saw the General and Martha their ownselves, and toured the buildings and grounds.
I was vaguely aware that Washington died of quinsy, but I’d never realized what that was until I heard a tour guide explain it.
(Several times, in fact. The line wasn’t moving very quickly.)

Turns out what killed Washington was an infection that swelled his throat shut, closed off his windpipe and suffocated him.

That’s a pretty goddamn horrible way to die, in my humble opinion.

I was not able to visit George Washington’s restored whiskey distillery, which was closed for the day.
But I did check out one of Virginia’s state-run liquor stores, which, not surprisingly, offer about four times as much of everything as your average Pennsylvania state store.

I couldn’t resist bringing a couple bottles of bourbon back with me — as well as a bottle of Virginia Lightning brand 100-proof corn whiskey, a.k.a. moonshine.
I’d been intrigued by descriptions of corn whiskey, and had toyed for a while with the idea of trying it.
So — with visions of frontier corn-drinkers in my head — I invested in a bottle of the clear stuff; ran it past the hapless gendarmerie of two states; opened it up and tried some.

Holy crap, is that stuff toxic.
It tastes a tiny bit like corn if you use your imagination … but mostly it tastes like Prestone.

As a spoiled modern drinker, I am used to beverages that bring joy to an occasion; that spur conversation, and sparkle and dance in the mouth.
Stuff that tastes good, in other words.

There is no joy or pleasure in corn whiskey.
This is stuff you drink to escape.
Stuff to help you stop thinking about your wife who died in childbirth, or to temporarily forget that you’re expected to work 12 hours at the mill tomorrow even though you are physically unable to straighten your back.
Stuff you drink when the average lifespan in your county is 40 years, and you’re 37, and you’re feeling like those extra three years ain’t gonna bring you much besides pain anyhow.

It smacks you in the face with every sip — and I can only imagine the brainhammer hangovers this stuff produces.
(I hope only to imagine them, anyway.)
Even pleasure came hard in the old days, it seems.

The 20th-century equivalent of a corn-whiskey bender would have been to take a fistful of pills at a Black Oak Arkansas concert, wash ’em down with some Mad Dog 20/20 and fall asleep directly in front of a tweeter.

It might have been corn whiskey that fired the “old, weird America” that Dylan summoned so well.
But I prefer to think all those 19th-century Mrs. Henrys and Ruben Remuses were drinking rye.
So much more convivial.

Having vomited all that vitriol out of my system, it is worth noting that I fully expect to finish the remainder of the bottle.
Maybe before I get to the much friendlier bottles of bourbon in my haul.
And almost certainly at a pace that will surprise me with its quickness.
(April 2015 editor’s note: I did indeed finish my first bottle. The stuff goes very nicely in stone fences. Shame I bought this second bottle outside of peak cider season.)

Maybe someday I will explore what drives me to drink.
But right now I gotta go to bed and get my head into the gray race again.
It’s possible that a week in the corporate world will make a shot of corn whiskey seem as comforting as a featherbed.

I’m feeling better.

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A couple months ago I started listening to Two Humans, a pop-punk band from the Hartford area.

(Yes, the guy who is on record as saying “Hartford is boring” and “All pop-punk sounds the same” is in love with a pop-punk band from Hartford. I reserve the right to double back all over myself if I want to. Consistency is for sucks.)

I’d had the inspiration, based on my Bandcamp adventures, that I could sort all the recordings from any particular state, look through them all, and build a mix of 10 or 12 songs. And then I’d have a Connecticut mix and a Rhode Island mix and a Minnesota mix that had all this cool grassroots music no one else had ever heard.

I can tell you from experience that such a mix is not as easy to build as it might seem … but as you’re trying, you’re likely to come across a single unfamiliar band whose stuff is good enough to distract you from the larger search.

And so it was with Two Humans — who were actually three humans, and who are no longer together as of last year, but whose 2011 recording Good Morning, Chemicals remains wonderfully available for the taking.

Lead singer John Rule III had (and presumably still has) a wry, cracked voice — like a less wide-eyed Jonathan Richman — that works well to put his lyrics across.

And his band’s music is not rigidly tied to the inflexible structures that usually put me off pop-punk-styled music (you know the ones — quiet verse, loud chorus, big power chords everywhere.)

Personal circumstances keep me particularly coming back to “Saggitarious,” the last song on Good Morning, Chemicals.

Things are looking up in my world. A month-plus of chiropractic sessions didn’t entirely cure my previously mentioned back problems, but I’m walking a lot straighter and functioning a lot more normally than I was for the first three months of the year.

I’m running every other day and am back up to three miles per run, which is where I would want to be at this time of year anyway. I’m getting in good walks on most of the days I don’t run, which I couldn’t do a few months ago either.

On top of all this, the weather is finally turning after another long, colder-than-usual winter.

The Lehigh Valley will be 60 degrees and sunny both days this weekend — the first really nice weekend of the year — and it’s supposed to stay in the mid-60s all this coming week.

The crocuses are out, and the chances of that one last pisser spring snowstorm have finally receded to zero. (Frost? Maybe; I’m not planting the jalapenos yet. But snow? No.)

“Saggitarious” is maybe not the perfect anthem for the moment. Its  first verse declares: “My grip here is crumbling / Don’t shout at me, shout at me,” while its other lyrics hint at various emotional entanglements.

But the chorus is big and glorious and singable and profane and right; and sometimes that’s all you need.

I’m feeling better now.